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SpaceX’s recent parachute tests came up short of expectations

Published May 10th, 2019 8:08PM EDT
spacex parachute
Image: Terry Renna/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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NASA is desperate for its own transportation solution to send astronauts to and from the International Space Station. It’s paid both SpaceX and Boeing huge sums of money to figure it out, and while both companies have consistently missed their projected milestones with regards to manned spaceflight, SpaceX has successfully completed a (unmanned) trip to the ISS with its Crew Dragon.

SpaceX would seem to be in the lead, which is something that surprised many observers. Boeing, with seemingly endless resources at its disposal, has yet to actually launch its Starliner spacecraft, but a recent hearing of a House subcommittee revealed that a SpaceX misstep may have opened the door for Boeing to step in and win the race to crewed missions into space.

As CNET reports, NASA’s William Gerstenmaier spoke during the hearing and revealed that a test of a SpaceX parachute system came up well short of expectations.

“It failed,” Gerstenmaier said of the parachute system. “The parachutes did not work as designed.”

That’s not great news for SpaceX or NASA, and an investigation into why the chutes failed the test is still ongoing, but it’s important to understand what kind of a test this was.

Under normal operation conditions, a series of four parachutes would deploy simultaneously, easing the descent and bringing the capsule (or in this case a large metal “sled” used for testing) to a comfortable touchdown. However, NASA has to be prepared for any and all circumstances that might arise during real-world usage, so the parachute system was tested with just three of its four parachutes deployed, simulating a failure of a single parachute.

Unfortunately, the three chutes didn’t work as intended and failed to reduce the test vehicle’s speed enough so that the landing could be considered safe. The vehicle analog was damaged in the testing and the results were unacceptable for NASA.

Hilariously, Boeing seems to have used this revelation as an opportunity to gain a bit of public goodwill, tweeting out that their own Starliner has completed “four out of five” major parachute tests. That’s a lovely talking point, but until Starliner actually travels into space it’s essentially meaningless in the SpaceX/Boeing race.